CREATe is happy to present the next entry in our 2023 series of working papers: “The Intersection Between Law and Art History: Comparing Interpretations of the Intentional Destruction of Art” by Rosie Wilson, LLM(Res) Graduate, CREATe, University of Glasgow and Trainee Solicitor at Slaughter and May.
Stories of artworks being destroyed or damaged are ever-increasing in the news and popular media. From the “Just Stop Oil” activists who threw Heinz tomato soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery, London on 14 October 2022 with the intention of increasing awareness of climate change, to the rush to defend artworks against destruction in the Russia-Ukraine conflict – the destruction of art is a broad and far-reaching topic.
There remains ongoing debate as to how destructive acts against art should be treated and interpreted, and whether the destruction of art can in some instances constitute art itself. In fact, “Protest Art and the Art of Protest” was a topic at the Art for Tomorrow 2023 conference held in Florence and Solomeo, Italy on 26-30 April this year. This conference aims to explore the economic and social impact of art and it selected art vandalism as a significant area of contention. The pervasiveness of this debate demonstrates the need for further, in-depth engagement with the topic.
This working paper offers a unique approach to make sense of the destruction of art, by providing a socio-legal comparison of how law and art history interpret such acts. It does this by exploring different categories of destruction identified from recent art-historical literature (including conflict-related, religious, political, and artistic destruction) and applying them to various historical and contemporary case studies. This is done to determine both how law and art history interpret the destruction of art, and whether art historians’ interpretations do or could influence legal interpretations. From these analyses, this working paper is able to offer insights into the consequences of conflicting interpretations of the destruction of art, and what they may mean to society.
The intentional destruction of art is a highly contentious and complex topic. In recent years the importance of the destruction of art has been increasingly recognised but, thus far, very few studies have directly compared law and art history’s approaches to destruction. As a result, it is unclear whether art-historical and legal approaches to destruction are consistent or even compatible. This research addresses this gap in the literature by conducting a socio-legal comparison of interpretations of the intentional destruction of art in law and art history. This comparison is structured around four categories of destruction identified from recent art-historical literature on destruction, including conflict-related, religious, political, and artistic destruction, as well as the distinction between the destruction of art and destruction as art. These categories are used alongside case studies to determine whether interpretations of the intentional destruction of art differ between law and art history, and whether art historians’ interpretations do or could influence legal interpretations. In addressing these questions, this research contributes to a better understanding of the concept of ‘destruction’ as well as the relationship between law and art, in both theory and practice.
Overall, this comparison shows that interpretations of the intentional destruction of art differ between law and art history and the role of art history in influencing law is limited – although this varies between areas of law and art-historical categories of destruction. While art historians effectively differentiate between different categories of destruction and interpret the meaning behind individual destructive acts, the law struggles to do this. As such, this research exposes a fundamental limitation of the regulation of the destruction of art. Under the current legal framework, the law regulates the destruction of art without looking to art history to understand what destruction means to art. Consequently, the law risks confusing important creative expressions and artistic practices with intentional acts of violence and harm.
This working paper is a thesis submitted for the degree of Master of Laws (By Research) at the University of Glasgow.
The full paper can be downloaded here.